Rabbi Shneur Zalman Chaiken was a wealthy man for whom charity and hospitality were a way of life. In shul, he chose to sit at the rear wall among the poor people rather than in an honored place up front. Wandering paupers would take him for a fellow beggar.

His ears were always perked up to the poor folks’ conversation. More often than not, the discussion would reflect their hunger and lack. “Why, I haven’t had a decent meal in three days” was a common complaint.

Rabbi Zalman would respond immediately, “You know, there’s a man in town by the name of Zalman Chaiken. His house is open to any needy person. I myself had a delicious meal there the other day.”

He would escort the poor people to his home, set the table, and serve the surprised guests. “The owner doesn’t mind,” he would say with a shrug. “He’s happy that his guests feel at home in his house.”

Once, Rabbi Michoel the Elder, one of the mashpi’im (spiritual advisors) in the yeshivah in the town of Lubavitch, was about to recite one of the central parts of the morning prayers, the Shema (“Hear O Israel”), when he noticed that one of the students had torn shoes. He interrupted his prayers and pointed out the torn shoes to the person who was charged with taking care of the students’ material needs.

Later, Rabbi Michoel was asked: “Couldn’t the torn shoes have waited until after you completed your prayers?”

“The Shema proclaims the oneness of G‑d,” replied Rabbi Michoel. “A student wearing torn shoes can, G‑d forbid, catch cold and be held back from study and prayer. Being conscious of this is an expression of the oneness of G‑d.”

The shul in the town of Nevel was humming with conversation. The prayers had not yet begun, and the local townspeople were exchanging their daily experiences of small shtetl life.

Observations were made on the fine milk that Yankel’s cows produce, the amount of hay Shmerel’s horses consumed, and the damage Yossel’s goat had caused to the vegetable patch.

Once the prayers began, however, all conversation ceased. The people blocked out all distracting thoughts and worries, and immersed themselves in prayer.

Once, at a gathering, Rabbi Michoel the Elder elaborated on the sanctity of a synagogue. “It hardly seems appropriate to speak about cows and horses in this holy place,” he said.

The people agreed, and decided that from then on they would not speak about mundane matters before or after their prayers. They adhered to his resolution with the utmost respect.

About a month later, Rabbi Michoel ascended the podium one morning and requested the congregation’s attention. “I suggest that we no longer pay attention to the resolution we made. From now on, we may talk about mundane matters in synagogue before the prayers begin, as we used to. Needless to say, this should not be done during the service itself.”

In response to the many questioning looks, Rabbi Michoel continued, “Although we had proper intentions, it seems that this resolution caused more harm than good. Before the resolution, we shared our daily difficulties with each other. We knew when a person needed a loan to replace his cow which had stopped producing milk, or when another person’s horse had come of age and he needed funds to purchase a new one. When we stopped talking before the prayers, we lost touch with each other, and were unable to show our care.”